Politics of Poverty

Workers in the US are under attack, but standing tall

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At a rally outside a Perdue poultry processing plant in Salisbury, MD on April 26, workers and advocates urged the company to improve conditions and compensation for poultry workers. (Photo: Mary Babic / Oxfam America)

Right now in the US, it feels like every day brings fresh outrage for workers. April was particularly packed with reasons to rally and to worry. However, it also brought a promising announcement from a major poultry company.

From low pay to high injury rates, workers pay a high price for our cheap goods in the US. As Oxfam has documented, poultry workers are at particular risk, facing multiple hazards, woeful compensation, and frequent denial of fundamental rights (e.g. adequate bathroom breaks). A recent piece in The New Yorker revealed how one poultry company seeks to exploit vulnerable immigrant workers.

Oxfam continues to stand with labor activists and organizations to advocate for the rights of all workers. From our busy month…

“The Dirty Dozen” offers a list of the most neglectful employers in the US

Workers’ Memorial Week (April 23-30, 2017) offered a moment to consider the thousands who are injured, made ill, or lose their lives on the job each year. Our friends at the National Council for Occupational Safety & Health (NCOSH) released a new report calling out some of the most neglectful employers: “The Dirty Dozen: Employers Who Put Workers & Communities at Risk.” The list includes a variety of sectors, showing how dangers lurk in many workplaces: retail, auto manufacturing, trucking, agriculture, food processing.

Not surprisingly, among the dozen is a big poultry company. The industry is notorious for dangerous conditions: sharp tools, hazardous chemicals, wet and slippery surfaces, cold and hot temperatures; but it’s also known for being careless: the processing line runs very fast, workers don’t get adequate breaks to rest or use the bathroom, training is minimal and may not be in the appropriate language, safety equipment is often inadequate.

So few of us were surprised to see Pilgrim’s Pride, the second largest poultry processor in the country, among the Dirty Dozen. The report cited the company for “death in a poultry processing plant, worker loses fingers because management ‘did nothing’ to address amputation risk, exposure to toxic ammonia.” OSHA notes, “A tragic loss resulted from equipment that could easily have been guarded.”

Keeping up pressure on the poultry industry

On the day the report was published, Oxfam was traveling to the Pilgrim’s headquarters in Greeley, Colorado, to speak on behalf of our shareholder resolution at the Annual General Meeting. Our resolution spoke to lack of diversity on the company board, noting that the company’s current board lacks any women or African Americans. A Board that better represents the gender and racial diversity of the workforce would go a long way toward identifying problems in working conditions.

While the resolution did not pass, it did get a surprising amount of support from shareholders. While the parent company of Pilgrim’s holds 79 percent of the shares, the resolution still garnered 15 percent of the total vote—which means well over half of those independent shareholders voted in favor.

Also that same day, an Oxfam partner and ally in the poultry workers campaign, the Greater Minnesota Worker Center, held a Workers Memorial March outside a Pilgrim’s/GNP plant in St Cloud, MN. They rallied “to commemorate those who lost their lives while working low wage jobs under poor working conditions but also to stand in solidarity with low wage workers who put their life on the line today in order to support their families.”

On April 26, Oxfam also rallied with a partner in Maryland, CATA-The Farmworker Support Committee, outside the Perdue poultry plant in Salisbury, MD. Workers and supporters came out to urge the company to improve conditions and compensation for workers.

A hopeful commitment, a pledge to be watchful

During the eventful week, Oxfam also welcomed a recent announcement from Tyson. If the company follows through on its commitments, workers will enjoy higher wages and benefits, safer conditions, and more opportunities to engage in the workplace and speak out without fear of retaliation.

This was no small feat. These are major milestones which have come through Oxfam and a broad coalition of organizations’ work to expose the harsh realities inside poultry plants in the US, applied public pressure on the industry to set new workplace standards.  Tyson is the first poultry company to make these commitments and we look to the others to follow.

Oxfam is proud to have worked with many organizations to get to this point. But as our partners note, this is the beginning of a new phase, not the end of the effort. We will be working with them closely to make sure the workers in the plants see real change.

A role for the federal government as well

This week coincided with the anniversary of the US Occupational Safety and Health Act (signed into law in 1970, it took effect April 28, 1971). Supporters and advocates use that time stamp to illustrate the positive role that the federal agency has played in workers’ lives. Sadly, we may be sliding backward, as recent proposals to cut the Department of Labor (DOL) budget by 21 percent would severely reduce the capacity to address safety violations and unsafe conditions.

NCOSH recommends a number of steps:

  • Strengthen protections for vulnerable workers who face disproportionate risk of injury and death (people of color, immigrants, temporary workers, and others).
  • Investigate incidents, and strengthen enforcement mechanisms.
  • Ensure the right to organize.
  • Implement comprehensive health and safety programs.

There will always be jobs that happen in dangerous situations, and feature arduous conditions. The imperative is to reduce these dangers and mitigate the hazards. It can be done, but it requires dedication and resources.

Now is not the time to cut resources to valuable federal and state programs. And it’s not the time to let up pressure on the industries to do better.

Take action

Share this graphic on Facebook or Twitter to urge Perdue: #DontChickenOut.

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